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Lobbyists succeed in weakening smart speaker privacy bill

While many of us have become increasingly dependent on our digital smart speaker devices like Amazon's Echo and Google Assistant to play our favorite music, create our shopping lists and basically be at our beck and call, there have been questions about just how much these devices actually "hear" and who may be listening.

Just recently, it was reported that Amazon has a team of people who transcribe audio clips from their devices to better program them to recognize words and respond to directions and questions from their owners. The company had not disclosed to customers that this practice takes place.

Illinois lawmakers share the privacy concerns being raised by consumers about these devices. This month, the Illinois State Senate passed a bill that would prevent manufacturers from collecting audio clips without appropriate disclosure to customers and make doing so "an unlawful practice under the Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act."

Originally, it would have allowed the Illinois Attorney General (AG) and state's attorneys to fine companies up to $50,000 in addition to ordering compensatory damages for every case in which a consumer complained of a privacy violation.

However, the bill that ultimately passed, the "Keep Internet Devices Safe Act," was a considerably watered-down version of the original thanks to the powerful tech lobby -- specifically, a group called the Internet Association. Lobbyists argued that the bill would create too much liability for manufacturers and provide "a path to private litigation which can lead to frivolous class action litigation against Illinois businesses of all sizes."

The final bill places restrictions on who can enable or turn on the microphone of a device without the appropriate authorization. It also stipulates, among other things, that the product's privacy notice or consumer agreement must state what actions or commands can enable the microphone and what types of third parties can have access to the audio collected by the devices.

The legislation says that it seeks to protect against "unauthorized access, acquisition, destruction, use, modification, and disclosure" of data collected by a device. Language around enforcement of the legislation, however, is vague. The bill states only that the AG "shall have exclusive authority to enforce this Act." Consumers won't be allowed to begin class action suits.

Nonetheless, if you believe you have grounds for a lawsuit under the Illinois Consumer Deceptive Practices Act, it's wise to discuss your case with an experienced attorney.

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